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The Benefits of Oil Pulling


First of all, what an awful name. Why would anyone ever want to try something called oil pulling? It sounds like the beauty version of fracking. It makes me feel nervous, like I’m somehow going to come away with fewer teeth or no hair on my head. But, I am exceedingly brave and will try most vegetarian and non-toxic things at least once, so I gave it a go. 

WHAT IS OIL PULLING?

An ancient Ayurvedic practice, oil pulling is basically a prolonged swishing of oil in the mouth, followed by spitting it in the toilet afterwards. So far, very romantic. But, when you read up on it, you start to think “Oh, it does all that for you? I think I should try it!” There are a lot of claims made by folks on the interwebs about oil pulling, from improving oral health to “detoxifying the body” to clearing allergies and sinusitis to curing diabetes and asthma.

Oh, people. Why must you be so grandiose?? It doesn’t have to do all those things to be worth my time, does it? I'm here to give you my take on it, as a western-trained physician living and breathing the healthy, Colorado-girl life.

HOW DO I START OIL PULLING?

When I first started oil pulling, I used virgin, organic coconut oil because I like the coco-nutty taste as opposed to the taste of sunflower or sesame oil, both of which can be used as well. Some say coconut oil may be beneficial because of the relatively high lauric acid content, which has some bacteria-fighting capabilities. Hard to say if it really stands up to the bazillions of bacteria in your mouth, but it can’t really hurt either. Experts say it is best done on an empty stomach, first thing in the morning. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps because this is when your mouth is at its grossest? Or because you have not put any “toxins” in to your body yet? While I’m not sure there is scientific evidence to prove that an empty stomach is required, I do find that first thing in the morning is the most convenient time of day to do it. Once my kids surface, then it becomes way less meditative and turns into a frustrating, gesture-filled, one-sided conversation with me saying only “mmmhh-hmmmm-hmpm” and my girls translating: “You want us to feed the dogs ice-cream, Mom?”

If you're using virgin coconut oil, you take a spoonful of the oil and perform an awkward chewing-something-that-doesn’t-really-need-chewing motion to liquify it, and then start swishing. I floss my teeth first, because I think it makes sense to clear the swishing pathways as much as possible beforehand. When I first started, I was an aggro-swisher and my cheeks cramped and fatigued until I learned my lesson: slow and steady swishing is the way. It’s not unpleasant at all, honestly. I use the time to do my little dry brushing routine, wash my face or have a shower, tweet, or do some gentle stretching. Some say to oil pull for 20 minutes, but I stick with 5-10 minutes, and then spit. It’s best to spit in the toilet, as oil in smaller sink drains could cause clogs down the line. After spitting, I rinse with warm water several times, and then brush gently with my usual, fluoride-free, SLS-free toothpaste. 

Lately, I've moved into the realm of bougie oil pulling with Terra & Co., and I'm not sorry about it. They make two oil-pulling oils, and I alternate between the two. They have a nice, minty taste, and it's WAY more pleasant and less gag-inducing than the chunky virgin coconut oil. It's also a lot more expensive. But it's a beautiful company founded by two sisters, and I love supporting them as much as I love their products. 

What are the steps of oil pulling?

1) Floss your teeth (don't brush them first). 

2) Put 1 tablespoon of raw, organic coconut oil in your mouth, and awkwardly chew until it is a liquid. Or take a small sip of your Terra & Co. oil pulling oil and do the same.

3) Swish slowly around your mouth for 5-10 minutes, or as long as you have. 

4) Spit into the toilet, rinse with warm water, and brush as usual.

What are the benefits of oil pulling?

In the oil pulling "literature" (this term is used loosely, as we're not talking about the New England Journal of Medicine here), you will be warned that the oil you spit out is LOADED with toxins and bacteria, and is just this side of needing a HAZMAT container. But let’s think about this critically: I put some coconut oil in my mouth and swished it around and now I want to spit it out. It is germy to be sure, but so is, um, spit. As for all those toxins, if they are in there, they just came from ME. So I’m not going to wear goggles and gloves to deal with the stuff. 

In terms of real benefits, I think the most realistic claims to be made about oil pulling are better oral health and slightly whiter teeth. Here are the reasons I think it works.:

  • You put oil in your mouth (fat), and swish it with your saliva (water and enzymes), and make a temporary emulsion, which has the inherent capability of binding oil and water soluble molecules, sweeping them both into the mixture being swished.

  • The mixture is thicker (higher viscosity) than water or mouthwash, and has more mass as it moves through the spaces in your teeth, and it elbows its way into the nooks and crannies of your mouth with more gusto.

  • The oil and enzymes work together to break down, bind, and lift some of the stains from teeth. I definitely noticed a whitening effect when I started, but only to a certain point. I think I reached maximum oil pulling whiteness after about 2 months of doing it 4-5 times a week.

  • The swishing action stimulates circulation in the gums, and the prolonged swishing time allows more bacteria, particles, and plaque to be pulled into the liquid, which is then ejected. (You might get some of the benefits of oil pulling by using a non-toxic mouthwash or even "water pulling" for 15 minutes a day.)

  • Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, periodontal disease is linked to cardiovascular disease. It is not proven that the link is causative, but there are theories that inflammatory pathways triggered by periodontal disease may lead to endovascular (inside blood vessels) inflammation, which is absolutely linked with cardiovascular diseases like atherosclerosis, strokes, and heart attacks. So, having excellent gum health may be a wise choice for more reasons than you think.

Are there any side effects of oil pulling?

As for negative side effects, I have heard only two. The first is bleeding gums and gum pain. If this happens, you could try swishing more gently, for less time, and less often until you build up healthier gum tissue. Keep in mind that bleeding with flossing or oil pulling probably indicates gum disease, so you need to pay attention to this symptom! The second possible side effect is stomach cramps, which can occur while pulling or just after you finish. It may be a version of the gastrocolic reflex, which is the reflex that makes every toddler have to poop after two bites of his dinner. If this happens, you could switch to a different oil, like sesame or sunflower. Decreasing time and frequency while you build a tolerance to the process is also recommended.

Overall, I think oil pulling is a great habit to incorporate into your daily health routine. I decided, after my last dental cleaning, to go six months oil pulling 5 days a week (minus a few vacation days) and see if my dental hygienist noticed a difference. At the appointment, and she said: "Your teeth look Excellent.  I rarely use the E word. But today, you get an Excellent." Guess I'll keep the oil pulling in the morning routine! If you only get to it a few days a week, no big deal—the benefits remain.

Now someone please think up a better name for this practice?

With love and a shiny grin from us to you,